The top 16 Jane Austen film and TV adaptations, from Bride and Prejudice to Clueless

We pick some of the best costume dramas on the big and small screen adapted from an Austen classic, including the BBC’s 1995 TV series ‘Pride and Prejudice’, which catapulted Colin Firth to fame 

Charlotte Cripps
Saturday 20 November 2021 10:28

There are so many Jane Austen adaptations for film and TV that it is hard to keep up. But which ones are any good?

Last year, Autumn de Wilde’s big-screen adaptation of Austen’s beloved novel Emma was released.

It stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the high-spirited protagonist Emma Woodhouse, who is a relentless matchmaker in the romantic lives of friends and family.

Also in the cast are Johnny Flynn as the dashing George Knightley, whom Emma eventually realises she loves, while Bill Nighy plays her father, Mr Woodhouse.

Austen’s novel, which was originally published in 1815, has already been adapted for TV and into films a total of six times since 1948: three films (one of them for TV) and three mini-series.

Although memorable, the four-part BBC TV series Emma in 2009, which starred Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, was criticised by The Independent for casting problems – mainly that Lee Miller was not convincing as a “surprising love object”.

The 1996 film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow opposite Jeremy Northam, was positively received thanks to her radiant and lofty performance.

But it’s the 1996 ITV film adaptation by Andrew Davies, with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the title roles, that is still considered superior by critics.

Austen wrote six full-length novels before she died – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816) – while Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818.

She began another novel, Sanditon, but died before it was finished. But it still managed to get turned into an ITV series last year.

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There is also a short epistolary novel Lady Susan – the inspiration for the acclaimed 2006 film Love and Friendship – as well as an abandoned novel The Watsons, which so far has only been turned into a play by Laura Wade, who is better known for her stage hit Posh.

With so many Austen costume dramas on the big and small screen, we rank some of the best – as well as mention the worst.

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, 2016

Bodies and bodices: the costume drama ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

The title says it all. This is possibly the worst of all the adaptations, proving that Austen and zombies really don’t mix. It is based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – a parody of Austen’s novel. It stars Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy. When zombies attack a ball that the Bennet sisters attend, they fight them off. At the end of the film, when Darcy and Elizabeth have a joint wedding with Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Jane (Bella Heathcote), zombies threaten to ruin it all. That sort of thing.

Bride and Prejudice, 2004

This Bollywood-style romp of Pride and Prejudice was directed by Gurinder Chadha. It got mixed reviews from critics, but it is still highly entertaining as it swaps bonnets for saris. It centres on Lalita Bakshi (the equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet), a young woman living in India, played by Aishwarya Rai. Her Darcy is a suave American businessman, played by Martin Henderson, but the all-singing, all-dancing spin on Jane Austen’s novel lacks any real depth.

Sanditon, 2019 (ITV series)

Period drama adaptor Andrew Davies turns his pen this time to Austen’s unfinished novel, written four months before she died. It starred Curfew’s Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Downton Abbey’s Theo James as Sidney Parker. But it was criticised for too much nudity and labelled “cringe-worthy” by The Independent.

Death Comes to Pemberly, 2013 (BBC TV series)

Based on the fan fiction novel by PD James, this picks up the story six years after Elizabeth and Darcy were married in Pride and Prejudice. Revolving around a murder mystery, the three-part BBC TV series garnered just as much acclaim as James’s book, with The Independent praising the casting of Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth. There were stand-out performances, too, from Jenna Coleman as Lydia Wickham and Matthew Goode as George Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice, 1940

The well-received MGM film ends with a long kiss between Laurence Olivier (Mr Darcy) and Greer Garson (Elizabeth Bennet). The is one of the funniest film adaptations of Austen’s most famous novel, with flamboyant costumes that look like they were borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It was directed by Robert Z Leonard with the screenplay written by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin.

Mansfield Park, 1999

This romantic comedy stars Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram. It is not faithful to the text; director Patricia Rozema claimed it was not a Jane Austen film, but a “Patricia Rozema film”. “My job as an artist is to provide a fresh view.” Rozema added character traits of Jane Austen to the character Fanny, created a “lesbian frisson” between Mary Crawford and Fanny, and made slavery a central plot point. The film’s boldness earnt it favourable reviews.

Emma, 1996

Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma

Gwyneth Paltrow makes a “resplendent Emma” according to The New York Times review, while Rolling Stone said, “Gwyneth Paltrow works such magic in Emma that you can almost hear the click of a career locking into high gear.” The first-time director Douglas McGrath adapted the 1816 Austen novel, having written Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen. While others found Paltrow’s nasal voice annoying and her Emma lacking in irony, she carried off the English accent close to perfectly.

Persuasion, 1995 (BBC film)

There’s nothing like a happy ending and Austen was a pro at them. Director Roger Michell’s Bafta-award-winning film is based on Austen’s 1817 novel of the same name. It stars Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as her love interest, Captain Frederick Wentworth. The pair are reunited eight years after Anne was pushed into rejecting his marriage proposal – which she deeply regrets. He feels hurt by the rejection but eventually the path of true love runs smoothly for them.

Emma, 1996 (ITV film)

This ITV film is generally considered to be better than Miramax’s starry film adaptation, which was released in the same year. It was dramatised by Davies, who had just done Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. It starred Kate Beckinsale as a wonderfully believable Emma Woodhouse, Mark Strong as George Knightley and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith.

Pride and Prejudice, 2005

Joe Wright’s first feature film, which starred Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as her romantic interest Mr Darcy, was a commercial success. Knightley received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role. It had a starry cast including Donald Sutherland (Mr Bennet), Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet), Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennet), Judi Dench (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and Rupert Friend (George Wickham). Screenwriter Deborah Moggach changed the film’s period setting to the late 18th century so that it stood out from the 1995 BBC adaptation, which has still remained a favourite.

Northanger Abbey, 2007 (ITV film)

Felicity Jones perfectly portrayed Northanger Abbey’s heroine Catherine Morland. Austen’s protagonist has a fevered imagination and a passion for Gothic novels, but things begin to unravel when that imagination leads her astray. The adaptation also stars JJ Field as Catherine’s love interest Henry Tilney, and Carey Mulligan as her friend Isabella Thorpe. It was written by Andrew Davies, who adapted 1995’s Pride and Prejudice for the BBC and the TV adaptation of Emma the following year.

Bridget Jones Diary, 2001

Renée Zellweger in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ moviestore collection

It was the 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice, rather than the book, which inspired author Helen Fielding to write her popular Bridget Jones novels. It’s fitting, then, that Colin Firth – who played Mr Darcy – stars as Bridget’s (Renee Zellweger) love interest Mark Darcy in the films based on Fielding’s own work.

Love and Friendship, 2016

Kate Beckinsale (right) in ‘Love and Friendship'

This acclaimed Amazon original comedy became a welcome addition to the Jane Austen adaption canon. It is based on Austen’s short epistolary novel Lady Susan, which was published posthumously. It stars Kate Beckinsale, who brilliantly plays the scheming Lady Susan, a recent widow who tries to find a husband for herself and her daughter. The film also stars Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Emma Greenwell.

Clueless, 1995

Christian and Cher in Clueless

This 1990s coming-of-age cult film is a modern-day retelling of Austen’s Emma, but set in Beverly Hills, rather than the fictional village of Highbury. It stars Alicia Silverstone as the romantic matchmaker Cher Horowitz – a wealthy high-school student who decides she enjoys helping others to find love. It became a surprise sleeper hit of 1995 and is considered to be one of the best teen films of all time.

Pride and Prejudice, 1995 (BBC TV series)

Colin Firth in the famous 'lake scene' in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice

No discussion about Jane Austen adaptations is complete without a mention of this adored and critically acclaimed six-part BBC mini series, by the master of the sexed-up period drama, Andrew Davies. Jennifer Ehle won a Bafta for her role of Elizabeth Bennet, while Colin Firth shot to fame as Mr Darcy. It is considered the starting point for the booming Jane Austen adaptation industry in both TV and film.

Sense and Sensibility, 1995

Emma Thompson spent five years writing her Oscar-winning screenplay about the Dashwood sisters; skilfully updating it for a 20th-century audience. Directed by Ang Lee, the film starred Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, while Kate Winslet played Elinor’s wilful younger sister Mariannne. After their father dies, the sisters are cut out of his inheritance and forced to move into a small cottage in the country. Hugh Grant and Greg Wise played their suitors, Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby, with a superb and much-missed Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.

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